The Superlative Horse

I began reading the stories of J.D. Salinger when I was about 14 years old.  I suspect that I started with “Nine Stories” as around that time my creative writing teacher had read to us “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.  The book delighted me and I worked my way through the Salinger canon with great speed.

I remember every detail, every word…but I also recall another story. Or perhaps it was a legend, or a myth, or history.  Or maybe it was a fable – for the reading of it taught me a lesson which stays with me today.  The story was called ‘The Superlative Horse’.  It was used at the beginning of ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour:  An Introduction.”

It begins with Duke Mu of Chin commenting to Po Lo, “You are now advanced in years. Is there any Member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?”   The answer he receives is in the negative; but he has a friend, who can procure for the Duke a truly superlative horse “one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks”.  The judgment of his sons lies on a far different, inferior plane.  The friend, “a hawker of fuel and vegetables” is dispatched on his quest.  Eventually word gets back to the Duke that his horse has been found, a dun-colored mare.


But when the animal is sent for, it turned out to be a stallion – as black as coal.


In a fury, the Duke sends for Po Lo to complain of the friend’s ineptitude.  On hearing this Po Lo, responds, “There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external.”  And when the horse finally arrived, “it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal”. It is a strangely moving text: a few paragraphs of prose that softly tread the fragrant waters of poetry.  The arrangement is silken, and before you are even aware, it has been committed to memory.

What Salinger had done was take nearly word for word, with a few variations, a work from “The Huainanzi”, a compilation of Chinese philosophical essays from the 2nd century BC.  It was an anthology of learned debates between the Prince of Huainan and the guests and scholars of his court.  Elegant reprimands, gentle reminders, evocative lessons, all paced as delicately as a ballet.  And the story of the depthless superlative horse contained each graceful virtue.

Emperors, Kings, Sultans, Caliphs…all men with a penchant for power and beauty at one time or another sought for themselves a superlative horse.  Before he became a weighty torment to the backs of his draft horses and Friesians, Henry VIII was one of the most polished and exquisite riders of his generation.

He was considered one of the most beautiful and accomplished princes in Europe.  He had spent his childhood sequestered with books and now this slim, long-limbed king only wanted to dance, sing, hunt, wrestle…and ride.  One man who saw him on horseback described him as “Saint George in person”. It quickly became known amongst foreign ambassadors currying favor for their masters that the quickest way to earn the love of the new king was to bring him a gift of a superlative horse.

Henry VIII and Brandon-Portsmouth 1548

His stables were populated with the sleek, muscular breeds of Europe and the desert: barbs, neopolitans, jennets, andalusians.  Every new creature was fawned over:  noble profiles praised as effusively as the marble busts of philosophers. Even the sickle of white that showed in impatient eyes was a sign of spirit – a mount fit for a king.


Henry was skilled in the art of dressage, a classical – and highly rarefied – art of riding, in which the steps had the contained grace achieved by only the most robust of pairings.   He took his horses through the capriole, regarded as one of the most difficult of the “airs above the ground”, in which the horse jumps straight into the air, kicking out with its hind legs, before landing on all four legs at the same time. It is difficult to imagine the traditional image of Henry VIII – crude, monstrous – once possessing the intuition and soft hands necessary for such a delicate sport.   There are reports from witnesses of kingly rider and mount performing this art for more than two hours.  And when one horse was exhausted, Henry would send for another.

He recruited the finest riding masters: from Naples, Ferrara and Mantua. He followed the Italian practice of training a horse to seek the rider’s “cherishing”, rather than fearing his spurs. To correct, Henry would exclaim, “Ha traitor! Ha villain!”. To praise he would say, sotto voce, “Holla, holla, so boy, there boy”, stroking their necks with fingers that had not yet become uncouth or pudgy.

In 1514, the Marquis of Mantua sent Henry a gift of horses, among them a shining, strapping bay named Governatore. Momentarily stunned by the animal’s magnificence, he touched the bay’s lissome neck, murmuring, “So ho, my minion”. He asked its trainer, “Is not this the best horse?”

And somewhere amongst the clouds, in a blissful firmament of dreams and wisdom, Duke Mu agreed that it was a superlative horse indeed.




2 responses to “The Superlative Horse

  1. I remember the tale of the Superlative Horse from my childhood. I read a picture book about it, only the buyer of horses was a young boy, not the peasant farmer of Salinger’s story.

    I had heard that Henry VIII was expert at jousting and a master horseman, but I would never have thought of him as a fan of dressage, a very difficult art indeed. My own impression was that he would have crushed all but the sturdiest horses with his huge weight. (He was over six feet tall, a giant in Renaissance England. I saw his suit of armor at the British Museum, and he must have frightening to face on the tournament field.)

    Excellent post, Aubrey. I think this is my favorite, not the least because it’s about my favorite animal, the horse.

  2. I know so little of horses, but I admire them, and sometimes, in my dreams, I ride them.

    I have a friend in Montana who has Friesians. His wife participates in Dressage. I’m going to send them a link to this post. I enjoyed it, but I suspect they will understand it in a way impossible for me. Beautifully written, as always.

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